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Black group set to oppose expansion of fundamental schools in south Pinellas County

A group of black leaders is prepared to oppose the expansion of fundamental schools in south Pinellas County.

Watson Haynes, co-chairman of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, said Tuesday that after discussions with members of his group, it is clear leaders do not think adding a fundamental school would solve the problems plaguing schools in the southern part of the county.

Chief among the group's concerns, Haynes said, is what would happen to struggling students if they don't qualify for a fundamental school, which requires parent involvement that can range from monthly meetings with teachers to signing homework.

Parents who don't live up to their end of the bargain and students who don't comply with stricter disciplinary rules can be asked to leave the school.

"If they're going to displace some students, they ought to know where they want them to go," Haynes said.

Critics worry that fundamental schools siphon off the most involved families at any school to the detriment of the surrounding schools. South Pinellas already has four high schools — Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs and Lakewood — receiving state intervention due to poor student test scores.

The COQEBS position comes as a group of school administrators, district leaders and parents begin brainstorming about a variety of student assignment plan changes, including possibly expanding fundamental schools. That group of 34 meets today at 4 p.m. at school district headquarters in Largo.

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen has said she hopes to present a proposal to the board by December. Approved changes could be in place as soon as the 2011-12 school year.

Right now, there are nine fundamental schools in the county, including one high school — Osceola High in Seminole.

Though teachers at D-rated Boca Ciega in Gulfport support turning the school into a fundamental, Janssen recently said she wouldn't recommend such a change because of her concerns about the impact on surrounding schools.

But several School Board members — including outgoing District 7 representative Mary Brown and the two candidates in a race for her south Pinellas seat — have said they see a need for more fundamental schools in the county. Brown, however, strongly advocates placing one in south Pinellas.

Jean Willingham, a parent and advocate of fundamental schools, said Haynes' group isn't taking into consideration the needs of high-performing south Pinellas students.

"I think this is a shortsighted response," said Willingham, who is part of the School District group looking at student assignment. "Raise the bar for the kids who want to excel and they will rise to that bar."

Willingham said she believes the majority of south Pinellas students are not struggling, but seeking a challenge.

COQEBS, which is responsible for monitoring the school district's compliance with legal agreements in two lawsuits dealing with the inequitable treatment of black students in Pinellas County, discussed fundamental schools at a meeting last week.

Haynes said that while his group supports the fundamental concept, more needs to be done to improve education for black students in existing schools:

Lengthen the school day and school year, he said. Pay teachers more for working in difficult schools. Funnel additional resources to schools where parental involvement and community support is harder to come by, he said.

"Most of the members are not in favor of a fundamental school at this time until there is additional research," Haynes said.

Janssen has said that if the district were to create another fundamental school in south Pinellas, she'd like to find a way to give priority to families of students who already live in that area — specifically, those who are at risk of losing their zoned school in the conversion to a fundamental.

Black group set to oppose expansion of fundamental schools in south Pinellas County 09/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 1:19am]

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